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The Abraham Accords, concluded by the UAE and Israel last month, are – at least as far as the UAE and some of its fellow Arab states are concerned – dependent on the immediate suspension of Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Undoubtedly, the deal, which was brokered by the Trump administration, signifies a shift of Middle Eastern fault lines and marks an important diplomatic achievement. However, this does not mean that the topic of territorial annexation is off the table; all it means is that the breathing space gained now will not last forever.
The postponement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans for parts of the West Bank was received with a sigh of relief from Europe, and even encouraged the idea that a new momentum to the Middle East peace process may be found, one to which many European countries would gladly lend their support.
During the Oslo Accords, European countries were involved in many stages of the peace process; not just in the negotiations themselves, which were led by Norway, but also in the form of a flow of ideas, for example, during the Madrid Conference in 1991. Furthermore, the EU is one part of the Middle East Quartet, established in 2002, with Tony Blair as its head until 2015. Could Europe become that crucial interlocutor and supporter once again?
Everyone is a Winner
While Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, presented the Accord at home as having stopped annexation, Netanyahu simply spoke of a ‘suspension’. Clearly, we are seeing a diplomatic fudge.
Netanyahu can use the deal to mark himself as the achiever of diplomatic relations with the UAE, with annexation plans only temporarily on hold, allowing him to appease his right-wing supporters. This could be especially useful if the rumours of new elections are believed – they would be Israel’s fourth in two years. The accord also provides Netanyahu with a distraction from the sticky situation he is finding himself in – the criticism of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing corruption allegations. He was indicted on corruption charges in November last year and is facing further trials in early 2021.
Meanwhile, bin Zayed can be hailed as the leader who managed to halt annexation plans for the West Bank without having to give Israel an inch. And the Trump administration? Well, they might be able to pass this off as a milestone achievement of foreign policy, jerry-built by Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
What Happens to the Annexation Plans?
In media interviews, Kushner claimed that Israel would not move ahead with its annexation plans without US consent, which would not be given ‘for some time’, making clear that the plans have been postponed rather than discarded for good. But Netanyahu was unlikely to act on his statements about annexation in the first place, given the current uncertainty about the next US president, so all this means is that the Israeli leader has been given a perfect cover to do what he was going to do anyway.
According to Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli journalist, Netanyahu hopes to utilise annexation as a bargaining chip against Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, should he be elected as the next US president. Apparently, the Israeli leader assumes that this could counterbalance the temptation of a Biden administration to restore the nuclear agreement with Iran, something Netanyahu strenuously opposes. It is clear that the subject of annexation remains a powerful weapon in the Israeli arsenal.
The EU and the Threat of Annexation
The most recent threat of annexation presented a challenge to Europe, and was especially complex for Germany given the country’s charged history with Israel. As Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear in a seminal speech more than a decade ago, Israel’s security was a non-negotiable matter for her. Heiko Maas reiterated the significance of their bilateral relationship in a recent visit, while also stressing Germany’s readiness to support talks between Palestine and Israel.
While Germany’s historic responsibility towards Israel steers its foreign policy in the region, Berlin also holds a strong commitment to a negotiated two-state solution. Germany was the biggest bilateral donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for the second year running in 2019 (when it was also the biggest overall donor, having donated nearly $170 million).
Germany’s reaction to the latest threat of annexation in June was outlined in a proposal by the coalition (Merkel’s Democratic Christian Union and the Social Democratic Party), approved by Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. The proposal advocates for a diplomatic course of action and argues that sanctions, or threats of such, would be unconstructive in this case. The plan was to engage relevant partners (read: the US) through multilateral channels to reinvigorate the peace process.
As the current EU Council president, Germany has avoided taking a confrontational approach. But that does not mean that the EU was silent. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, penned a column for the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s leading English-language daily, in which he outlined the unsustainability of the current status quo between Israel and the Palestinians, and pointed out that annexation would not only endanger the two-state solution but also affect the broader rules-based order. That continues to be the EU’s position, notwithstanding the Abraham Accords. Other than cautioning other countries of diplomatic repercussions, what can the EU do? Given its expressed desire to continue with a peace process engaging both sides, what would need to happen for Israel to return to the negotiation table? Statements by politicians and press releases mention the Oslo Accords time and time again, despite the fact experts are largely in agreement that this previous diplomatic milestone is now dead in the water. While not being publicly marketed as such, this seems to be the case among insiders as well: as Daniel Marwecki, a German academic, reports, German officials working on the ground in the Middle East are either irritated or bemused when addressed with Oslo terminology, suggesting that it holds very little practical meaning in reality.
Annexation is clearly unlikely to happen in the immediate future, if only because Netanyahu fears the repercussions the move could have in a Biden White House. A second term of the Trump administration, however, could mean that the plans are invigorated in the next four years. So, the Europeans have gained a bit of respite, enabling them to gather ideas and assume a position with which they can engage in a future negotiation process. But that would only happen if the Europeans are able to see eye to eye with a new US administration about what needs to be done, and if Europe adopts a more coherent and realistic approach in pushing for a collaborative peace process in the region.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: President Donald J. Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyanisigns sign the Abraham Accords Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Courtesy of the public domain.